Surprise, value and control in anterior cingulate cortex during speeded decision-making


Activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is observed across a variety of contexts, and its function remains intensely debated in the field of cognitive neuroscience. While traditional views emphasize its role in inhibitory control (suppressing prepotent, incorrect actions), recent proposals suggest a more active role in motivated control (invigorating actions to obtain rewards). Lagging behind empirical findings, formal models of dACC function primarily focus on inhibitory control, highlighting surprise, choice difficulty and value of control as key computations. Although successful in explaining dACC involvement in inhibitory control, it remains unclear whether these mechanisms generalize to motivated control. In this study, we derive predictions from three prominent accounts of dACC and test these with functional magnetic resonance imaging during value-based decision-making under time pressure. We find that the single mechanism of surprise best accounts for activity in dACC during a task requiring response invigoration, suggesting surprise signalling as a shared driver of inhibitory and motivated control.

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Fig. 1: Theoretical predictions and experimental paradigm.
Fig. 2: Behavioural strategies and reactive and proactive control processes.
Fig. 3: fMRI and behavioural performance.
Fig. 4: Feedback and reward-related surprise.
Fig. 5: Whole-brain polynomial fits.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request.

Code availability

Detailed modelling methods are included in Supplementary Methods. All scripts used to derive predictions from the various computational models are available online at


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We thank C. Holroyd, J. Brown, T. Verguts, Z. Langford, J. Maynard Keenan and M. Pessiglione for useful discussions. W.H.A. was supported by FWO-Flanders Odysseus II Award (no. G.OC44.13N) and by start-up funds provided by Florida Atlantic University. E.V. was supported by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions with a standard IF-EF fellowship within the H2020 framework (H2020-MSCA-IF2015, grant no. 705630). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

E.V. and W.H.A. conceived the study and designed the work. E.V., W.H.A. and J.D. performed acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data and drafted the manuscript. E.V. and W.H.A. revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to William H. Alexander.

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Peer review information Primary handling Editor: Marike Schiffer

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Factors influencing Akaike Weight estimates.

Our analysis of fMRI data using polynomial functions fit to beta estimates from BOLD data is substantially different from classical or model-based fMRI analyses. In order to explore what factors may influence our results, as well as how nested polynomial functions independently account for observed patterns of activity in our data, we carried out additional simulations and analyses. First, we asked what factors affect the ability of our analysis approach to identify quartic effects using Akaike Weights. To answer this, we conducted six simulations of synthetic data generated by a quartic polynomial equation while varying the noise, number of subjects, and shape of the function. 10,000 simulation runs were conducted for each condition, and Akaike Weights calculated to obtain a distribution of the likelihood of Akaike Weights. The results of these simulations suggest that, as in classical univariate analyses, the likelihood of obtaining an Akaike Weight >0.999 for the quartic polynomial function (when the data was in fact generated by a quartic polynomial function) depends both on the quantity and noisiness of the data itself. That is, with less data and more noise, it becomes less likely that our analyses will assign the quartic polynomial function an Akaike Weight of 0.999 or higher. Additionally, changes in the shape of the quartic function that render it more similar to other (quadratic) functions reduce the likelihood of calculating an Akaike Weight >0.999 for the quartic function. These results suggest our analysis approach parallels typical fMRI analyses in terms of the factors that influence the likelihood of observing significant effects.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figs. 1–7 and Supplementary References.

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Vassena, E., Deraeve, J. & Alexander, W.H. Surprise, value and control in anterior cingulate cortex during speeded decision-making. Nat Hum Behav (2020).

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